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Football far from mind for New Hanover’s Earl Smith

September 20, 2018

More than 100 miles from home, Earl Smith sat in Cary concerned for the well-being of his coaching staff and players, for his family and his home.

Smith, the head football coach at New Hanover High School in Wilmington, evacuated to Raleigh with his wife on Tuesday, Sept. 11. It was the bye week for the Wildcats, who were coming off a last-second 41-40 win over Garner the previous week.

“We had that game and it was so emotional after the game, when you win in the last second like we did, we didn’t even talk about it,” Smith said, referring to Hurricane Florence. “At that point on Friday night we just talked about the open week and I didn’t get to (the hurricane).”

The plan for the bye week was to give the players off from practice on Monday and Friday. New Hanover, the defending 3AA state champions, had several nagging injuries, so the bye week came at a good time. Smith planned to have his team practice on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

“Sunday, it kind of hit all of us,” he said. “When we got up Monday morning it was like, ‘Wow.’ Everybody started planning, we went to school, we decided not to practice because people were planning on evacuating like we did.”

Everyone scattered. Players and coaches.

Some coaches evacuated to places like Pennsylvania and Maryland. Some players evacuated to the Triangle, some ended up in other states. One player evacuated to Savannah, Ga.

“It happened real fast, but thank goodness for technology. I was able to keep up with my coaches. Basically what I told them was, ‘Stay safe and we will not worry about football until school is back in,’” Smith said. “Everybody seems to be safe. That’s the most important thing.”

Smith said the coaches have all kept up with the players, keeping tabs on where everyone evacuated to, who may have stayed behind, who may need help.

This isn’t the first time Smith has dealt with a hurricane. In 1996, when Hurricane Fran made landfall near Wilmington and moved inland through the Triangle, Smith was the head football coach and athletic director at Millbrook High School in Raleigh.

“We were out of school in Wake County for two full weeks plus maybe a day. We missed three games, they were all non-conference. I was all gung-ho, ‘We’ve got to practice,’ but then we opened Millbrook up to the public because they had power,” Smith remembered.

As the athletic director, Smith rotated with the principal and a few assistant principals as they opened the school to public. People came to the school to take hot showers and sit in the air condition. It opened Smith’s eyes.

“I saw doctors, lawyers, folks that couldn’t afford anything there, all of a sudden that just kind of put a different perspective on it for me and football was definitely not a priority at the time,” he said. “I think that helped me and that is kind of the approach I’m taking right now. I’m just concerned about our players, safety is a big issue. We are right downtown and that area got hit probably the hardest.”

Smith made his way back to Wilmington on Wednesday. His house made it through the storm without too much damage. His daughter’s house has numerous trees down. But he said the city has taken a serious hit.

“It’s just not good in Wilmington,” he said. “That’s why I want to get there, go around and visit. I know where my kids live. If they’re affected, they don’t have time to go around and help everybody ... you have to focus on chipping away and helping where you can.”

But he knows help is coming. When he and his family evacuated to Raleigh last week, he ran into crews staging in Raleigh. Some of the men he met were from Alabama, Pennsylvania and Arizona.

“The trucks were coming in and I actually talked to some of those guys on Wednesday morning ... that was amazing to see the trucks rolling in, talking to those guys,” said Smith. “We’ve got to deal with a lot and just have to take it one day at a time.”

Smith said he knows the Wilmington community is already coming together and one day he hopes the football team can be part of that.

“At the right time, absolutely. I think about Lumberton, one of my coaches grew up and went to Purnell Swett. I think he got his mom out of there. Even in the areas around Kinston, Tarboro where the Tar River floods. I’ve been through that with former players,” Smith said. ”(Football) is on the back burner right now, but at some point it can possibly (help the community come together). I don’t know when it’s going to happen. We’re just going to take it one week at a time.”

Now that Smith is back in New Hanover County, he plans to start making the rounds to see how he can help, to make sure his players and coaches are all safe. But he doesn’t want any of them focused on football right now.

“As a player or a parent, focus on your family first. Make sure everybody’s safe and at the right time, when the coach calls or when the school system says it’s OK to go back, then zero in on your goals. But I think the biggest thing is to focus on your family and being safe,” Smith said. “The death toll continues to rise. We’ve been watching it here on TV and it’s really heartbreaking. One of the first deaths was a tree that fell through a house that was not too far from our campus. It killed an eight month old and a mom, that just really got me.”

Smith doesn’t want to see any additional tragedy in Wilmington.

New Hanover was scheduled to play South Brunswick this week, that game has been postponed but the makeup date has not yet been set. Next week the Wildcats are slated to play Topsail, but that game is in jeopardy too.

Those games aren’t the priority right now though for Smith. He said they’ll worry about football once everyone is home and safe.

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